Spotlight: Fashion Studies at Parsons—What Is It Anyway?

By Lauren Downing and Anya Kurennaya

Where does one locate the study of dress and fashion within the academic domain? Where are there sites for research into this field? What are the tools used to create a discourse on and about the clothed body? What on earth are fashion and fashion studies anyway? These are a sample of questions used to frame Parsons’ groundbreaking symposium titled Locating Fashion/Studies, which was held at the Theresa Lang Community Center on November 12 and 13, 2010.

The symposium was both an inauguration of the newly minted MA Fashion Studies program and an opportunity for fashion studies heavyweights to gather and critically engage with fashion as practice, as material culture and as theory. The speakers addressed the above questions through research topics as rich and as varied as global denim, curatorial approaches to displaying fashion and fashioning everyday masculinity. It was an exciting event for us—the program’s inaugural class—to meet and engage with our heroes and to locate potential research sites. However, after the symposium had come to an end, we were still left grappling with what exactly fashion studies is, and where exactly we fit within the ivory towers of academia.

On account of the fact that fashion studies is a difficult field to explain to those outside of the protective bubble of the academy, one of our hopes was that we would leave the event with a tidy definition that we could parlay to well-meaning friends and relatives, many of whom still believed that we were off in New York designing haute couture for Project Runway. Rather, we left with the realization that it is not just we students who struggle to define the nature and purpose of a master’s degree in fashion studies, but that our teachers and mentors do as well.

A common catchall explanation that emerged amongst us was one that broadly explained fashion studies as an “interdisciplinary” or “collaborative” approach to the study of fashion in all its facets. Yet this meager explanation seemed woefully inadequate after witnessing firsthand the breadth and potential of the field that was demonstrated at the symposium. Reconsidering these vague terms, in the days that followed we returned over and over to the definition that we were provided with from day one: students of fashion studies “explore fashion as object, image, text, practice, theory, and concept and develop a critical understanding of fashion and its complex global intersections with identities, histories, and cultures in the contemporary world.” Deconstructing this definition, the boundless scope of our potential research sites becomes evident.

Fashion itself is an enormously broad category, encompassing everything from the personal choices one makes every morning as one prepares one’s self for the social world (whether that includes practices of bathing and adornment, acts of dressing, or rituals and preparations) to the complex and intricate way the fashion system operates locally or globally (from the designers, manufacturers, and marketers to the journalists, buyers, advertisers, and consumers).

In the brief time since we began our studies, we have discussed topics as diverse as the gendered identity and cultural impact of the stiletto heel; the way fashion is represented in Richard Avedon’s 1950s Vogue photographs; the manner in words and layout design have been manipulated to create a particular editorial effect in fashion magazines; and the changing dress behavior of youth subcultures, to name but a few. Examining fashion as object, image, text and practice, respectively, the breadth of the field has become readily apparent while the very definition of fashion has been radically reappraised.

Because these different facets of fashion warrant different approaches, students of fashion studies must ask questions about the theories, concepts, and methods we can use to conduct research in this field: should we use a text- and image-based archival approach, a more ethnographic approach that involves participant observation and interviewing, or should such methodological decisions be left in the hands of the individual researcher?

In many ways, the nature of the field and our own diversity beg for a collaborative approach. Our backgrounds are a testament to this diversity. Just this year, our students have come to the program from disciplines as diverse as art and art history, linguistics, anthropology, marketing, journalism, and even biochemistry. In short, we studied almost everything, and now we study almost everything as it relates to and is mirrored by fashion in all its various guises and forms.

Yet, as we study fashion in all its incarnations, we cannot help but also reflect on the study of fashion itself. In establishing the character of our program, we are exploring our field more introspectively, asking which theories should be foregrounded and which concepts are most crucial to our understanding.

Fashion Studies MA students at lunch with “fashion studies heavyweight” Chris Breward. pic: Mattison.

If fashion studies is so far-reaching in its scope, and if we are so diverse in our backgrounds, how can we build an established canon that is neither too scattered nor too limited? Do we risk alienating each other by delving too far into the theories of our respective disciplines, and do we risk oversimplifying the field if we seek too deeply a common ground?

From our perspective, fashion studies is indeed somewhat of a lump sum of our own experiences, encompassing everything that we ourselves are interested in. But it also has emergent properties, and we are charged with the task of establishing the links and connecting the dots between our various academic backgrounds while imbuing Fashion Studies at Parsons with a unique identity.

Fashion Studies and Collaboration

As an inherently interdisciplinary field with a diverse group of practitioners, fashion studies is well suited for a collaborative research approach. Collaborative work gives us the opportunity to inform one another of our academic strengths, and it allows for the type of practical working experience that leads to a more comprehensive, more informed view of the particular topic and of the field in general. This section addresses the advantages and disadvantages of such “interdisciplinarity” and asks how collaboration can be used as an aid to furthering knowledge.

Parsons’ professor Pascale Gatzen discuss theory and practice with Otto von Busch, researcher at the School of Design and Craft, University of Gothenberg, Sweden. pic: Mattison.

To start with, collaborative work capitalizes on the nature of interdisciplinary research by giving us a way to remain rooted within the discipline that we know best, while still giving a nuanced, multifaceted character to the research. We will never be experts on everything, so pooling our knowledge together seems a particularly effective way to bridge the gap and approach a more comprehensive study of a given topic.

As scholars in a new field, a fixed hierarchy of scholarship does not yet bind us. This notion puts us in a unique position to be truly multi-methodological. The flexibility of the field allows us to specialize, and its interdisciplinary character lets us combine those findings with others; we have a certain comfort in being able to apply our respective methodologies and compare the results with others.

The collaborative element of the process involves tracing the common thread that runs through the research—something that has the possibility to be both enriching and enlightening. With respect to establishing a canon, the collaborative approach gives us a measure of freedom to build our own canon in relation to our particular research goals. Such a canon is reflective of our backgrounds and interests but is still helpful to those whose paths diverge. As Francesca Granata (independent curator and editor of Fashion Projects: Journal on Fashion, Art and Visual Culture, New York) pointed out at the symposium, such collaboration allows us to better define our research and potentially opens more funding for further research as we gain recognition within the academic community.

The interdisciplinary nature of the field is also potentially problematic and we must address these problems in order to understand why collaboration is such a helpful approach. As mentioned, we run the risk of misunderstanding or potentially alienating each other because we may or may not share a collective understanding—a sort of “lost in translation” effect liable to occur when so many disciplines are at work. If we are too mired in our own respective fields, we may lack the perspective needed to think about our topic in any other way—the “fashion studies” way.

Moreover, the breadth of our interests may not match the depth of our knowledge in these early stages. Collaborative research prevents such academic entrenchment, but when done poorly runs the risk of exacerbating the problem. Working with someone within the same field but with a different disciplinary background, we may have a collective terminology but disparate criteria for defining it. If this remains unchecked throughout the collaborative process, it can lead to splintered, fragmented research. We need to be mindful of such potential misunderstandings throughout the process of collaborative work if we are to overcome it.               Furthermore, such a multidisciplinary approach leads us to question whether we can really build an established canon for fashion studies.  How can we build one that pulls from each discipline and doesn’t become piecemeal, fragmented, hopelessly scattered or reductive? If we try to rein it in, do we limit ourselves and exclude other approaches? How open should our borders be?            Collaborative work, when performed astutely, may solve the problem by proving those pieces that connect the various questions we ask. This is to say, those pieces which help establish the links between disciplines and which frame our topic from a variety of perspectives complement those pieces rooted within a given discipline and, when taken all together, provide for a more comprehensive and well-rounded canon which is both in-depth and far-reaching.

Conclusion

In the end, fashion studies as a discipline may do well to embrace its collaborative and interdisciplinary strengths—as well as its shortcomings—in establishing its canon. As the inaugural class, we have been shouldered with the task of reconciling many of these issues. Yet as we continue to grapple with a way to present our scholarly identities to those outside of our isolated community, we struggle even to establish a common ground amongst ourselves. In the end, we are left asking simply, where do we go from here? For if we are unable to create mutual understanding between ourselves, how can we transmit our body of research to our undoubtedly diverse readership?

Collaboration, in the end, may prove to be the best avenue for achieving such goals. Working together allows us to see one another’s blind spots and reflect the diversity of our discipline more accurately. However, in establishing our field, we need to be cognizant of the fact that other disciplines have faced similar problems.

Looking to the similarly interdisciplinary field of film studies, we can learn much about the evolution and establishment of a field. Borrowing from popular culture, history and an original body of theory, film studies began to materialize as a discipline in the early twentieth century through a system of calculated collaborative scholarship. Today, over 150 schools nationwide offer majors and graduate degrees in film studies—a future we can to aspire to for our own field. Now firmly canonized under the auspices of academia, the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of Film Studies is viewed as its strength, not its weakness.

At what point do we stop pandering to others’ questions regarding our academic identity and confidently pursue what it is we’ve set out to do? Perhaps best articulated by one of our professors, Todd Nicewonger, it is our job as scholars of fashion studies to continually ask, “What does fashion make possible?” and to pursue answers through collaborative research. Ultimately we must remember that we are not alone in our pursuit.  Being the first of something is an uneasy station, but having the go-ahead to collaborate in good company makes it even more manageable. g

*Editors Note: The Parsons MA in Fashion Studies is run by Dr. Heike Jenss. It functions as a subsidiary of the School of Art and Design History and Theory (ADHT), which is headed by Dr. Hazel Clark, a prominent fashion historian and theorist.